Tuesday, 9 August 2016

This science is gay

In an article titled, "Some anti-gay men have an impulsive attraction toward homosexual imagery, study finds," PsyPost reports that "Some male college students who have negative attitudes towards gay men show an unconscious bias in favor of homosexual imagery."

Is this true? While the gay-friendly public (myself included) enjoys when openly anti-gay figures like Ted Haggard are outed as hypocritical gays themselves, the answer is no. The study itself  (bypass the paywall here),  does not show that men with negative attitudes toward homosexuality show unconscious enjoyment of homosexual imagery. This research is unworthy of publication; its popularity seems solely politically motivated. This is pseudoscientific clickbait. Its clickbaity nature happens to be the reason I ran into it at all.

The study gives its bias away right in the introduction: "Homophobia is typically defined as any negative thoughts, attitudes, or behaviors toward homosexuals as well as an aversion or a fear toward interacting with gay individuals. As such, homophobia includes both cognitive and emotional responses toward homosexuality."

See what they did there? The first sentence describes homophobia as negativity toward gay people, which is fair. But the second sentence magically equates this with negative feelings about homosexuality itself.  Sexual arousal and rejection are feelings. Negative feelings about homosexuality are an inherent part of heterosexuality -- if you didn't have them, you'd be bisexual. Right in the introduction, this study pathologizes male heterosexuality by equating it with homophobia.

1) How did they determine participants were "anti-gay" or had "negative attitudes towards gay men"?

Besides the evident researcher bias painting male heterosexuality as inherently homophobic, they also used a deeply partisan questionnaire to determine whether participants were "anti-gay," called The Modern Homonegativity Scale, which uses the familiar 1-to-5 agree-to-disagree scale. It is also from 2002. Gay rights have progressed significantly since 2002. It is not fair to judge 2016 participants as though they live in the political atmosphere of 2002.

Questions (that is, statements to be rated) include:

-- Celebrations such as “Gay Pride Day” are ridiculous because they assume that an individual’s sexual orientation should constitute a source of pride.

A man uninterested in the politicization of sexuality, or simply unfamiliar with the extent of oppression gay men have faced in history, will be deemed "anti-gay" by agreeing with this statement.  It is not reasonable to require participants to interpret a "Gay Pride Day" as synonymous with a "Gay Rights Day." Straight men are expected not to be actively proud of their sexual orientation, and usually aren't. But holding gay men to an equal standard is considered "anti-gay" by this test.

-- Gay men who are “out of the closet” should be admired for their courage.

Gay marriage is now legal throughout the United States and Canada, and gays are celebrated in media and public discourse. Nevertheless, if a man fails to express not just acceptance or neutrality, but admiration for gays simply because they are openly gay, he will be demeed "anti-gay." The term "should" further undermines clarity: if the participant personally admires gays but doesn't agree with dictating and judging the feelings of others, he may also be deemed "anti-gay."

-- Gay men do not have all the rights they need.

Where? In North America where the participants live and where gay marriage is legally recognized? Or worldwide, which includes Muslim and other countries that kill and imprison gays? Participants aware of world politics are required to take a chance by blindly guessing at the question's meaning. Participants unaware of world politics, and even unaware of absolutely all the legal issues gays may face, risk being deemed anti-gay. Further, participants are given no opportunity to show whether they are treating gay rights as less important anyone else's rights: perhaps they believe rights issues in general are overblown and meddlesome. The only thing made clear to me by the ambiguity of this question is which answer is surely the obedient one.

-- Gay men should stop shoving their lifestyle down other people’s throats.

This is easily interpreted in a way that allows a reasonable person to agree with it. It does not clearly state which or how many gay men it refers to. Some gay men do shove their lifestyle down other people's throats. Hell, a gay man once physically dragged my straight friend aside in a club and literally shoved his tongue down his throat. It is easy to interpret the statement as a reference to the gay men who fit the (figurative and thus ambiguous) description, placing the gay men who don't fit the description outside the sphere of reference in the first place. But any participant who is aware of what is expected of him politically will know that the obedient answer is the one which interprets this statement in the less reasonable way as a generalization about all gay men, and disagrees with the statement on that basis.

-- In today’s tough economic times, tax dollars shouldn’t be used to support gay men’s organizations. 

Participants who agree with this because they support cutting social funding in general will be deemed anti-gay, when what they truly are is fiscally conservative. Worse, this question doesn't simply fail to account for fiscal conservatism -- it actively seeks to entrap fiscal conservatives as anti-gay by using the unnecessary preface, "In today's tough economic times."  While fiscal conservatism may be worthy of criticism, it is not in itself anti-gay.

The questionnaire goes on. Most points address not homosexuality itself, but the dominant politics of homosexuality: far-left identity politics. In order to dodge the anti-gay label, respondents must be actively pro-gay by a definition of pro-gay belonging to a specific far-left political narrative. The questionnaire's structure forces participants to either be with it or against it. It is likely to label any openly gay conservative or libertarian "anti-gay."

No consideration is given to politically neutral heterosexual young men who haven't paid much attention to gay politics. The questionnaire could account for this issue by offering short hypothetical anecdotes and then asking questions about the anecdotes, but it doesn't do that. Instead, participants are expected to already be familiar with existing cultural anectotes in gay politics. If they haven't achieved that familiarity on their own by actively participating in the gay segment of the political arena, which in fact has very little to do with their own lives, this questionnaire is likely to deem them anti-gay.

It is fair to conclude that the Modern Homonegativity Scale is not a reliable way to discern unjust bias or bigotry against gay people.

2) What evidence is given of "impulsive attraction," described in other words as "bias in favor or homosexual imagery," and described by study leader Boris Cheval as "denied attraction"? 

About a month after participants took the Modern Homonegativity Scale test, they were brought back in for an assessment of their reactions to heterosexual and homosexual imagery.

One might assume (like I did) that arousal and attraction were assessed by some sort of objective and directly relevant means, like the measurement of brainwaves, pulse rates, breathing, and genital engorgement as was done in this other study (which by Cheval's standard would indicate that a significant portion of women are closeted bonobosexuals).

Cheval's study was not nearly so exhaustive. His references to "attraction" and "arousal," which in this sexual context clearly imply sexual attraction and sexual arousal, actually refer instead to the length of a stare (assessed via eye-movement tracking) and the strength of a reaction (via manikin task) to gay or straight imagery on a screen. That is, this study only collected data indicating the general attraction of attention and the general arousal of a reaction. General attraction and arousal can emerge as easily from revulsion, morbid fascination, curiosity, shock and suprise as it can from sexual interest. Remember the Two Girls One Cup reaction fad? Would you diagnose the people who watched it in unblinking horror as scatologically inclined?

All of this means that participant reactions interpreted by researchers as indicating sexual arousal are methodologically rendered indiscernable from the reactions which would indicate sexual revulsion. In other words, evidence supporting the study's hypothesis looks exactly the same as evidence negating the study's hypothesis. This renders the study and its results meaningless.

3) What about controls?

Only participants' reactions to straight and gay sexual imagery were measured in this study. Images which typically evoke revulsion (for example scatology, roadkill, a person sobbing) were not included. The inclusion of commonly disliked imagery could have been used as a control, differentiating reactions indicating revulsion from reactions indicating attraction. If instead the revolting imagery elicited reactions which the chosen methodology could not discern from sexual attraction, this would have been a clear indication that the methodology needed improvement.

4) What about blinding?

Researchers performing the eye-movement and manikin tests were blinded to the results of the initial questionnaire, meaning they didn't know that the participants they were working with had been labeled anti-gay. However, participants were not blinded. The study's description does not indicate that the initial Modern Homonegativity Scale questionnaire was given among any other questions on any other topics. Receiving a single questionnaire about homosexuality clearly would indicate that a participant's view of homosexuality was the study's focus. Participants may have sought to prove that they were not homophobic by exaggerating the attention paid to gays during the latter part of the study.

5) What about women? 

Plenty of women are anti-gay, plenty of women profess they are attracted solely to women, and plenty of women are also aroused by gay men. The exclusion of women from this study suggests that its conception has more to do with pathologizing male heterosexuality than with studying relationships between bias and sexual arousal in human beings.


First the study failed to determine whether straight male participants were homophobic. Then it failed to determine whether participants were aroused or repulsed by the images presented to them. It failed to apply sufficient controls and it failed to utilize sufficient blinding techniques. The study failed on every level and produced no more than a tentative sound byte barely interesting enough to bait clicks.

This "If you look at it you like it!" attitude reminds me of the common charlatan defense in which they describe their staunch and unyeilding critics as "obsessed with me."

And on a tangenitally related note, I'll finish with a meme. Cuz I like memes.

Source: 2014 criticism of Duke University's "You Don't Say" Campaign

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